11 December: William Kempe

Kempe performing his Nine Day Wonder.

Name: William “Will” Kempe

Tagline: A comedic actor and dancer who was part of several theatre troupes that also contained another William – Shakespeare. He broke with that company in 1599, striking out on his own.

Claim to Fame: Apart from being the inspiration of many of Shakespeare’s funny characters, notably Falstaff, he marked his independence by morris dancing from London to Norwich in the course of nine days.

Our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life is often very sketchy. And our knowledge of the people around him is even sketchier. But that is not to say that we know nothing.

There is some evidence to suggest that William Kempe was out of a wealthy family of Catholic nobles, the Kempes. This has not been proven though. In any case, he is first heard of as a jester and dancer in the theatre company, Leicester’s Men, alongside several others who would later join with Shakespeare.

At one point, Kempe went with a couple of other English actors to Elsinore, to perform there for King Frederick II of Denmark. Elsinore was a wealthy city thanks to the Sound Dues, established by Eric of Pomerania, and the king had built the grand castle of Kronborg on top of Eric’s old castle. That castle later became the Castle of Elsinore in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

After that, we sort of lose track of him, until he forms The Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1594, alongside Shakespeare and others. He plays with that company for several years, until something causes him to leave in 1599. There are some things that point towards an unfriendly breakup. For instance, Shakespeare writes a complaint about improvisational clowning into Hamlet – improvisational clowning being a trademark of Kempe’s.

But Kempe was not beat. He had a trick up his sleeve! I like to imagine that his pride was hurt, and that he wanted to show Shakespeare and the rest of his former comrades that he did NOT need them.

In any case he performed his so-called “Nine Day Wonder” in 1600. Over the course of nine days, he morris danced about a hundred miles from London to Norwich. Now, Morris is a dance that is intended for you to move while dancing – but a hundred miles is a long way to dance. Somewhat diminishing the effect, he didn’t do it on nine consecutive days, but rather on nine days spread out over several weeks. Still, it was something of an accomplishment.

Unfortunately for Kempe, his deed did not propel him to great fame. At least we don’t hear a lot about him after that. Apparently he went on a tour of Europe, including a stop in Italy. The tour can’t have lasted long, though, because in 1601, he’s in Britain, having joined an acting company, and borrowing money. In late 1602, his moneylender writes about him in his diary – and then, in 1603, he dies.

How would I use him: In many ways, the comic actor, Kempe, ends up as a tragic figure. I imagine that his pride got the better of him, and propelled him into obscurity.

In more general terms, Kempe makes me imagine a campaign, in which a travelling group of actors have to solve mysteries wherever they go. It could be a GUMSHOE game, or maybe a Fate game. And so we have the Clown (like Kempe), the Playwright (Shakespeare), The Lead (Burbage) and so on. Because they travel, and because they get to meet all sorts of people, it would be a great way to make a game set in Elizabethan times.

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